Commissioning New Works

We are excited that mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack has selected the fabulously gifted American composer Rene Orth as her collaborator on the newly commissioned work that will stand proudly as part of Daniela’s recital with Keun-A Lee on April 18. Rene Orth’s most recent opera 10 Days in a Madhouse, based on the investigative journalism of Nellie Bly, opened Opera Philadelphia’s season last September to tremendous critical acclaim. Commissions always bring the promise of freshness and stimulation.

Vocal Art’s DC’s Commissioning History
Commissioning and creating new music wasn’t originally part of Vocal Arts DC’s 1990 founding mission statement. Then in the spring of 2014, our Board of Directors planned our 25th Anniversary Season and also envisioned what our next quarter-century should look like to grow and change with the times and mirror the world around us. To their everlasting credit, two of our erstwhile longtime board members spoke eloquently in favor of our adding newly commissioned works to our priorities. Conductor Robert Wood brought his perspective as the founding director of Urban Arias, a gem in the Washington cultural landscape once dedicated solely to the world and local premieres of contemporary operas. Dr. Water L. Kirchner, then still one of the nation’s leading experts on nuclear reactors as Chairman of Argonne Laboratories, summered in Santa Fe, where he has subsequently retired and joined the Board of Directors at Santa Fe Opera. Walt had repeatedly experienced firsthand the buzz of excitement that new music had generated for decades at Santa Fe, where premieres sparked audience interest and often carried over into repeat productions elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad. Everyone embraced the idea that Vocal Arts DC should open our 25th Anniversary season with a concert that would feature an artist ready to introduce our first new song cycle, and that we’d offer commissioned works in alternate seasons moving forward.

Creating Iconic Legacies
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was already high on the “wish list” to open our celebratory season. She has always had a reputation for excellence ranging from the Baroque to the “ink barely dry” contemporary, yet somehow, peerless artist that she is, hadn’t given a recital under our auspices in over a dozen years. Would she be interested in learning a new work to include on her program? If so, did she have any recommendations as to its composer? Indeed, she was ready for a new vehicle, and she wanted to collaborate again with Jake Heggie, whose operatic setting of Sister Helen Prejean’s bestselling memoir Dead Man Walking  Susan had helped turn into a sensation during its 2000 opening run at San Francisco Opera. Jake immediately signed on because of Susan’s commitment and enlisted the composer and lyricist Gene Scheer to help him develop the concept for a series of songs that would uniquely reflect our presence in the nation’s capital. They eventually settled on a theme inspired by objects in the Smithsonian, closely identified at seminal moments in American history with four First Ladies: the mink coat loaned by Eleanor Roosevelt to Marian Anderson when the great contralto sang her legendary 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; the top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre the night of his 1865 assassination; the White House Christmas card in preparation at the time of JFK’s 1963 assassination in Dallas; and a photo of Barbara Bush with the Muppets during her appearance on the beloved PBS television program Sesame Street.

The Iconic Legacies Premiere
The plan all along was that Jake, a highly accomplished pianist, would serve as Susan’s collaborative accompanist for the recital, which further included two of the greatest song cycles—Robert Schumann’s Frauen-Liebe and Leben and Hector Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été—along with a group of Ned Rorem songs long championed by Susan. Susan felt strongly that Jake and Gene’s new cycle was strong enough to conclude the program; Jake, almost uniquely modest among composers of my acquaintance, was far less sanguine about placing his own music last. In the end, Iconic Legacies: First Ladies at the Smithsonian drew a standing ovation midway through the first half of Susan and Jake’s recital on Saturday evening, September 12, 2015.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the Iconic Legacies story. Rather than languishing unperformed indefinitely thereafter, the cycle has since been championed by another of America’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of great mezzo-sopranos, Jamie Barton, who also included it in Unexpected Shadows, an entire album of Jake’s songs with the composer at the keyboard. Jamie and Jake concluded their recital for us on April 6, 2022 with Iconic Legacies, a wonderful full-circle moment as it also marked the first glimmer that the end of the pandemic was in sight and that live music might just be back.

A Vibrant Future for New Music
Less than a month after Dead Man Walking opened the Met season in September, Houston Grand Opera opened their season with the world premiere of Intelligence, a Civil War thriller with score by Jake, libretto by Gene Scheer, and Jamie Barton among the co-stars. I keep dreaming that Jake, Gene, and Susan or Jamie will reunite on Iconic Legacies someday with the addition of a fifth song paying tribute to Michelle Obama. But the cycle is plenty fine “as is,” the challenge to perform it is rewarding and awaits any artist who takes the plunge, and a terrific recording has given us the gift of permanence, a rare opportunity to evaluate a work more closely than the one-off immersion a premiere affords. And it will be fascinating to learn what new mezzo takes the baton from Susan and Jamie to make Iconic Legacies her own. Meanwhile, I can hardly wait to hear what new stories Rene Orth has to tell us through her music in April.